St Albans council ‘humiliated’ after government officials express concern about strategic local plan

Green Belt land for St Albans' SLP in Harpenden next to Sauncey Wood school

Green Belt land for St Albans' SLP in Harpenden next to Sauncey Wood school - Credit: Archant

Contentious plans to transform swathes of St Albans’ Green Belt into 4,000 homes have suffered a “humiliating” setback after government officials warned such growth might not be viable.

Green Belt land for St Albans' SLP in Harpenden next to Sauncey Wood school

Green Belt land for St Albans' SLP in Harpenden next to Sauncey Wood school - Credit: Archant

After spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultants’ reports, and devoting years of work to replace its decades’ old planning blueprint - dating back to 1994 - St Albans district council recently submitted its draft Strategic Local Plan (SLP) to replace its outdated policies.

But in a major setback the planning inspectorate, which is currently examining the draft document, has told the authority more work is needed.

News of the inspectorate’s preliminary concerns have come as “no surprise” to campaigners fighting possible large-scale housing developments in Redbourn, St Albans and Harpenden.

As warned previously in the Herts Advertiser, the council has been accused by neighbouring councils of “failing” to co-operate with them over suitable future housing targets and cross-boundary issues.

Inspector David Hogger warned the district council that a “significant matter” relating to such legal compliance “needs to be addressed now”.

He told the council it needed to show its duty to co-operate had been met, based on an appropriate assessment of issues that cross local boundaries, “particularly with regard to overall housing provision”.

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While the local council has asked for the go-ahead to have 436 homes built annually within the life of the draft plan, which runs from 2011-2031, nearby authorities say between 650 and 700 homes should be built here each year.

Mr Hogger said: “Based on the submissions and evidence that I have read, for example from nearby local planning authorities, I am concerned that the duty has not been met.”

He wants the council to “justify” its annual housing target, pointing out he also has “concerns regarding the justification of the council’s approach to economic prosperity and employment”.

In delivering the proposed growth, there is “insufficient clarity and detail regarding the associated infrastructure that is required and how it will be provided”.

Mr Hogger warned that with questions over provision of future infrastructure to accompany the district’s expansion left unanswered, there is “uncertainty regarding the … viability of the council’s proposals”.

Those proposals include building thousands of homes on fields in the district.

Chairman of Redbourn parish council, Cllr David Mitchell, who with fellow villagers has been fighting plans to build 2,500 homes in the parish, said: “I wasn’t surprised by the inspector’s comments. It is humiliating for the council. We have said to the council that the duty to co-operate doesn’t seem to be happening.

“In an ideal world we wouldn’t want to see any building on the Green Belt, but we have always been concerned about the lack of information about how they will go about providing infrastructure.

“They should listen to the inspector as he has raised some important points.”

Joanne Whitehead, a member of the Harpenden Green Belt Association which has been fighting the council’s plans to pave the way for 500 homes in the town’s north west, said: “I think this is a knockback. It’s embarrassing for the council as their planners have been so keen to reassure councillors that everything is fine”.

With regard to the duty to co-operate, Joanne pointed out: “One of the things we in Harpenden have been concerned about is that Central Beds council is interested in building up to the county boundary, which would utterly transform north Harpenden.”

Eric Roberts, of St Albans Civic Society, and Ron Taylor, of Harpenden Society, said the watchdog groups were “aware” of the inspector’s report, and pointed out there was a risk the draft plan could come to a temporary halt as Mr Hogger had highlighted concerns regarding its soundness.

When inspectors have significant concerns about the soundness of a submitted plan, they can require suspension or partial suspension of the examination process to give the authority time to undertake further work to address issues raised.

St Albans MP Anne Main said it was “vital St Albans was protected by a viable local plan” and she hoped the concerns raised “can be sorted as soon as possible”.

The council’s executive leader, Cllr Julian Daly, said he was “not surprised” by the inspector’s report, and that such comments “are normal” in the planning process.

He said that an initial hearing session would be held within the next few months, to discuss the duty to co-operate further, and “we will put forward our case”.

A confident Cllr Daly added: “I’m amazed the [duty] issues were raised in the first place – duty to co-operate is not a duty to agree.

“I don’t see this as a knockback, as we have proof of our co-operation.”

A spokesman for Hunston Properties, which hopes to build homes on land off Harpenden Road, said the inspector’s role was to “help councils adopt a local plan that is legal and sound. By inviting neighbouring districts to a hearing, he’s giving all sides the chance to agree what, if any, revisions are needed to make it sound.”